Predicting The Winner of the US Presidential Election


With the U.S. presidential election we know who is going to win from their voice. Consistent with patterns of leadership tussles for social species, the November contest between President Barack Obama and challenger Mitt Romney will involve relentless status and dominance displays. For humans, voice is a key tool for dominance and submission displays.

In a study of eight U.S. presidential elections there is a clear pattern. Vocal dominance is measurable and the dominant candidate gets most votes. 

The research has implications for our persuasiveness and credibility at work. 

Credibility and Persuasion
Voice transmits significant social messages. There are four elements of voice that play a role, and the U.S. presidential study deals with the last:

1. Activity level – time speaking and the amount of energy.
2. Influence – turn-taking patterns of the conversation.
3. Mimicry – mirroring the speech and body language of the other person. 
4. Consistency – the amount of variation of speech patterns and gestures.  

Consistency of Pitch
Who sets the tone of the discussion? The answer is the high status person. When people communicate they adapt the frequency or pitch of their voices to one another. Relative social status plays a key role. Persons of lower status adjust their nonverbal vocal patterns to match the dominant person. Higher-status people adjust their vocal patterns less. 

One study looked at 25 celebrity guests on the Larry King Live television show. Unconsciously, Larry King changed his own vocal signals to accommodate persons of higher social status than himself, and persons of social status lower than Mr King accommodated their vocal patterns to him.

The pitch of the voice is the "rate of vibration of the vocal folds".  As the number of vibrations per second increases, so does the pitch, meaning the voice would sound higher. Researchers measure the pitch at low frequency levels – that’s the level where unconscious status signalling and adjustment occurs. 

Dominant Candidate Wins
The researchers analysed 19 debates from eight U.S. presidential elections: Kennedy/Nixon (1960), Carter/Ford (1976), Regan/Carter (1980), Reagan/Mondale (1984), Bush/Dukakis (1988), Clinton/Bush (1992), Clinton/Dole (1996) and Bush/Gore (2000). They were seeking to determine a) whether the dominant partner in the debate can be distinguished from the less dominant partner and b) whether the dominant partner is associated with the higher percentage of the popular vote in the election. The answer on both counts is “yes”.

Nine voice samples from each candidate were taken from the audio tapes of the 19 debates. The samples were distributed evenly over the course of the debate. Each sample lasted about six seconds and were analysed using a dedicated instrument. 

The results are as expected. On stage the less dominant candidate unconsciously changes their pitch to accommodate the vocal cues of the more dominant candidate without awareness by either themselves or the voters. 

The pitch metric predicated the popular vote in all eight elections and in all but one election (Bush/Gore in 2000) the popular vote decided the election. 

The researchers point out that it doesn’t necessarily follow that voice quality causes voters to vote for (him). They have no data to make any claim. They discuss, though, that given debates provide a stage for dominance then the display of dominance by one candidate may influence undecided voters. It may be that undecided or less informed voters unconsciously detect the dominance signals and vote for the dominant person. 

Without causal data we can’t say scientifically that the connection is absolute. But it does say:

1. That high dominance in measurable. 
2. The dominant candidate maintains their vocal pitch. 
3. The less dominant candidate adjusts their pitch to accommodate the high status opponent.
4. This happens below consciousness of either the candidates or the audience.
5. The dominant candidate receives the most votes. 

(Source: Gregory SW and Gallagher TJ, “Spectral Analysis of Candidates’ Nonverbal Vocal Communication: Predicting U.S. Presidential Election Outcomes” in Social Psychology Quarterly 2002, Vol 65, No 3, 298-308)
Implications for Work 

In work interactions our voice will influence our persuasiveness and perceived credibility. The implications are:

1. There will be times when you are expected to be the dominant person in a meeting or interaction. Be conscious of your verbal cues and seek to maintain your pitch (frequency of tone).
2. There will be times when you are expected to be lower status. It’s okay and generally socially appropriate in that setting if you find yourself matching the tone of the dominant person. 
3. You will increase you ability to persuade if you maintain consistent pitch.
4. At times of appropriate dominance (such as managing a poor performer) maintain pitch. 

Between now and the Tuesday after the first Monday in November watch for social dominance signals between the presidential candidates – and in particular voice cues of dominance or submission in the debates. Unconsciously, voters will be detecting the signals. The dominant candidate will win.    

Andrew O'Keeffe

August 2012

[email protected]


Andrew O'Keeffe is a Human Resources Executive. He has observed bosses for many years, has worked for bosses and has been a boss. As a result of these studies he has written one of the very best leadership books ever, called 'The Boss'and recently released 'Hardwired Humans'.

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